A crying toddler calls out for his mother as he is kidnapped by armed agents of the state, who drive away with him in the back of their car. This is the face of Donald Trump's immigration policy. Even more appalling, it is the face he wants the world to see.
"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech this week. "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
In Sessions' view, a woman who flees political violence in Honduras with her 18-month-old son, hoping to find refuge in the United States, is a child smuggler who deserves what she gets. As for the boy, his suffering is part of the price that must be paid to secure the border.
During a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the billionaire bully who currently occupies the White House berated Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who was so upset by the experience that she reportedly drafted a resignation letter. (Presumably Sessions can sympathize.) According to The New York Times, Trump was enraged by Nielsen's "failure to adequately secure the nation's borders." One of his complaints was that "Ms. Nielsen and other officials in the department were resisting his direction that parents be separated from their children when families cross illegally into the United States."
Just two months ago, Nielsen's department was telling Reuters "it does not currently have a policy of separating families but that it does so at times if a child may be at risk." Now the official policy is to deter border crossers by threatening to kidnap their children.
Here is how White House Chief of Staff John Kelly explained that policy on NPR this morning:
The vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13…. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English; obviously that's a big thing….They don't integrate well; they don't have skills. They're not bad people. They're coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws….The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.
Sadly, Kelly comes across here as rather more enlightened and compassionate than his boss, who launched his presidential campaign by describing immigrants from Mexico as rapists, criminals, and drug dealers, while allowing that "some" might be "good people." Still, it is hard to follow Kelly's logic. Is he saying that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement would keep families together if the parents had better educations? What is the minimum credential required to stop strangers from snatching your 7-year-old daughter and shipping her 2,000 miles away from you? Is a high school diploma enough, or does ICE demand a college degree?
Last month the Times reported that more than 700 children, including more than 100 younger than 4, had been "taken from adults claiming to be their parents" since October. If that is what happens when the head of the department that includes ICE is "resisting" the practice, hundreds could become thousands once Nielsen quits or falls in line.
Just to be clear: The current justification for snatching these children is not that the "adults claiming to be their parents" are not in fact their parents or that the children would be endangered if left with the adults who brought them. The deterrent effect that Trump, Sessions, and Kelly hope to create is based on the assumption that loving parents will hesitate to enter the United States without permission if they think they will lose their children should they be caught.
A class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in March argues that "the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment does not permit the government to forcibly take young children from their parents, without justification or even a hearing." The ACLU also argues that the practice "violates the asylum statutes, which guarantee a meaningful right to apply for asylum, and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which prohibits arbitrary government action."
Legal issues aside, Trump's policy clearly violates widely shared notions of human decency. What does it tell us that the president of the United States is outraged when little kids aren't being torn from their parents' arms by strangers?